College sports have become an important part of higher education in the United States; they play an important role in college culture, dorm life, and they bring in large amounts of revenue by students and fans alike. From smaller Division III colleges to the largest Division I universities, colleges recruit athletes to perform and produce profit for the school through ticket sales and network television deals. With the coronavirus pandemic, all of that has changed. Colleges will lose substantial amounts of income, smaller schools will become unstable and risk closing down, and college towns may face the loss of many businesses and residents.
Many programs like schools in the PAC 12 and BIG 10 conferences could face the loss of millions of dollars in revenue, all while continuing to pay to maintain facilities and the salaries of athletic coaches and staff. Even the top Division I conferences could not agree on a starting time and precautionary procedures, with conferences like the SEC and ACC starting as usual, while others like the PAC 12 and BIG 10 initially cancelling their seasons, then later returning.
The last time a college sports season was severely affected was during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. People wore masks and practiced social distancing, adhering to the guidelines similar to those of the current pandemic. College sports were canceled, postponed, or, in the case of football and other more popular sports, played under strict guidelines. However, college sports were not as big and did not generate as much money as they do today. They were mostly similar to club sports, with fewer fans in attendance, less national attention, and little school reliance on them for income.
Today, larger schools like USC, and other NCAA Division I schools, have the resources and money to weather the losses from a lack of sports revenue, despite their investment and heavy reliance on their athletic programs. Many of these schools have endowments in the hundred of millions, and even billions, to support their own institutions. USC, for instance, has around $5 billion in endowment. While the financial damage is heavy, the economic effect of the pandemic will not leave a relatively lasting and damaging effect. Many people can still tune in to watch their schools to play their sports, and those who are allowed to attend games live do attend them, as seen with institutions like Oklahoma, Texas, Alabama. Larger student populations also mean more revenue from student tuition, giving schools with tens of thousands of students a financial safety net for the time being. Student athletes, however, have no true security; those who remain still continue trying to manage their academic and athletic careers in the middle of a global pandemic, all while trying to meet the expectations of their coaches and their fans.
As for smaller schools, it’s a completely different story with many of them forced to make drastic adjustments or budgetary cuts, considering their smaller student population and endowment. Small universities and liberal arts colleges will suffer disproportionately larger losses. Unlike larger schools, these universities must endure the loss of revenue from athletic programs, and may have to budget their academic programs as well. This will force many to cut or reduce certain athletic programs, leaving many student athletes without their sports. Schools with a lower endowment will have to prioritize certain athletic and/or academic programs that help bring the school the most revenue. Many of the sports cut are considered non-revenue sports, which do not generate the same revenue as larger sports like football and basketball. Dartmouth, despite its status as a rich Ivy League school, cancelled several sports as a part of their budgetary cuts, including their golfing and swimming and diving programs. Even a larger private research school like Stanford was forced to cut 11 varsity sports. Ultimately, larger schools can make more temporary or smaller cuts due to their larger endowments, but many smaller schools will have to make more drastic cuts to survive financially.
Other heavily affected areas include college towns, as they will be economically hurt much harder than other areas since they rely mostly on colleges for economic support. Whether they are large or small in size, even notable college towns like Tuscaloosa, College Station, Ann Arbor will not have as many students attending classes in person. Consequently, there will be drastically less money spent in those areas. Lockdown orders, students opting to stay home and attend classes online, and less visitors all mean a loss of revenue for people living in college towns. Local businesses in those areas that traditionally relied on having college students on campus now face an uphill battle just to exist. Business like restaurants, independent student housing, and entertainment centres will be forced to adjust to a lower consumer population, and many will likely fail due to the heavy shift in consumer spending. Many face lower employment rates or lower disposable incomes that the pandemic brought. While businesses serving essential services may have a higher chance of surviving, others like entertainment centers, restaurants, bars will likely suffer due to the reduced spending, restrictions on larger gatherings, and a general lack of interest due to the pandemic.
With the issue at hand, colleges will need support more than ever. The first point of help would likely be from the government, especially with public institutions. Allocating funds to secure programs would create that much-needed safety net for student athletes especially. The second avenue of assistance would be from the colleges’ own students and alumni, where they can call for help through fundraising or donations to increase the schools’ endowments. This solution would not be as feasible, as many students and alumni would be less likely to spend given the financial struggles from the pandemic. Raising tuition can also be a solution, but with the risk of losing students who are not willing or unable to pay an increased price for an online and arguably lower quality education. These efforts may ultimately be fruitless, as they are only temporary bandages for a deeper wound that is exposed by the coronavirus pandemic. If there is to be a solution, it would need to be a more permanent and long-lasting one that does not sacrifice the well-being of students and athletes while better preparing colleges to survive the next pandemic.
COVID-19 has affected people all over the world, but colleges in the US are uniquely affected due to their heavy emphasis on their athletic programs. Considering how American colleges are inextricably intertwined with their athletic programs, the only possible solutions would include the aforementioned budgetary cuts, whether temporary or permanent, and financial support to local businesses in college towns. Government support, fundraising, increasing tuition may help, but regardless of situation or relief, the coronavirus pandemic will force colleges in the US to rethink how they can operate and perhaps even reduce their reliance on athletic programs.